Why being an only child gets tougher as a grown-up: caring for elderly parents alone

Taking care of elderly parents is something that comes to most of us in time. While brothers and sisters may share the load, if you’re an only child then for better or worse, it all falls on your shoulders.

When friends start talking about planning big family get-togethers, I sometimes feel a little envious. As the only child of only children, I always say we could have a family party on a postage stamp.

Growing up as an Essex girl – I will admit to dancing round my handbag on a Saturday night in Southend – most of my friends had siblings. For a time I thought I would have liked an older brother (albeit probably so I could date his friends), but of course, that was never going to happen.

I had to ‘learn’ to be an only child. I had to break the rules all by myself, first having had to establish where those boundaries were – no doubt a big learning curve for my parents as much as for me.

Being the only one meant I knew how to stand on my own two feet and feel comfortable in my own company.

Having moved overseas for eight years, by the time I returned home in the mid-1990s with a husband in tow, Mum and Dad had quite rightly made a different life for themselves. They had many friends, enjoyed lovely holidays and various hobbies kept them busy.

Work decreed we settled in Oxfordshire and we each took it in turns to make the two hour drive to visit my parents in Essex.


Gradually though, things began to change. When my father became ill, I started staying overnight more regularly, while Mum coped incredibly well on her own. Over time, his health declined and he died just a few days short of his 80th birthday in February 2012.

Losing one parent is a reminder that they won’t be there for ever. It was time to ‘go home’, a decision I am forever grateful my husband fully supported.

Being self-employed meant I had the freedom to work anywhere and, as my husband was on a contract that often took him away, it mattered little where we were based.

We found a lovely house seven miles away from Mum – near enough to be there when needed, but far enough apart to ensure our independence – and the icing on the cake was when hubby found a new job just 20 minutes away. All of a sudden I had my Mum and my husband “on tap”.

Coming home

I would say returning to my roots was odd but also comforting. After 26 years away, so much had changed, yet so much was the same.

The coincidences have been coming thick and fast: I literally bumped into my old boss, one new friend turned out to be the daughter-in-law of a former teacher, and another the daughter of an old colleague.

Above all, the move has put my relationship with Mum on a new level. As she often says, the child becomes the parent – I’m always looking out for her, grateful to be able to do so.

While she is fiercely independent and still drives, we have had the “big discussions” about power of attorney, wills, money and funeral arrangements. I know what she wants and why.

I gently encourage her to think about things like getting a personal care alarm, am a sounding board for new ideas, and provide a listening ear for those times when I know she is especially missing my Dad.

Sibling rivalries

So, is it easier to do this as an only child, or does sharing the responsibility with siblings also share the load? Not always.

I know of two siblings who are joint executors of their father’s will. While one wants to move forward after his death 18 months ago, the other refuses to sign the paperwork or even agree where their father’s ashes should be laid to rest.

Another friend hasn’t spoken to her older sister for years after a disagreement over money when their mother’s house was sold. The rift went so deep that when the old lady died, the older sister even refused to attend her funeral.

So yes, there can be tough days as an only child but, having known nothing different all my life, I am completely comfortable with the responsibility. I see it not as a burden, but as a privilege and can focus on Mum’s best interests, rather than fighting with family about the big decisions.

Making this move was the best thing we could have done and Mum and I enjoy sharing many happy experiences together – whether it’s a cup of tea on a winter afternoon, or drinking vodka shots at the age of 81 in minus 12 degrees of the Amsterdam Ice Bar. Roll on our next adventure.


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Alison Dewar

Journalist and PR Alison Dewar recently returned to her Essex roots...

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